The voyage back was a time of peace and healing for all of them. There were no questions asked, no explanations demanded. That would come later, back on Coruscant, where undoubtedly whole catalogues of open topics were being assembled already. Unfortunately Corran was not sure if any of those requests could be met sufficiently at all. After their flight from Kuthan they had all met again aboard the Corvette Faith. And right now he had taken refuge in Luke's quarters and they were both immersed in meditative exercises, exuding calm and contentment at an almost transcendental level. It was amazing what kind of control it required to relax so thoroughly. But Luke was a good teacher, very patient and understanding, and, what was more, he had completed his training only recently, a fact that made them more equal than Corran felt around Master Yoda. Still, he could not help but notice that the young Jedi Knight spend an awful lot of time with Vader. Even more so than Mara Jade. Not that Corran had any righ to interfere. Besides, the Dark Lord would rip his head off if he even tried. It was almost ridiculous, the way the Sith acted toward both Luke and Jade. Not to mention the refugees. So fiercly protective, as if he did not trust their rescuers one inch. And yet, there was something amiss, some secrets left untold. Well, for now he would be patient, but in the end not even Darth Vader would be able to withhold all of the truth.
Snapping out of his grim broodings the Corellian looked up at Luke who had risen from his seat on the floor and now stood watching him intently.
"I'm going to go for a little walk around the ship. Wanna join me?"
"No, thanks," he breathed, sensing that Luke had proposed his joining him out of mere courtesy. Most likely he would go and meet with Vader and Jade.
Shutting the door behind him Luke left without turning back once. Corran shivered involuntarily. There was something strange in the air... "Damn Sith," he whispered, heart-felt and moved to get up. But the glowing specter that appeared quite suddenly in front of him held him back, frozen in his tracks. Gaping at the tall man clad in voluminous black robes, ebony hair gleaming in the artificial lights, Corran wished that he had not said what he had. The stranger gave him a mocking smile, then glided closer, his image sometimes wavering like a bad holo.
"Corran, Corran. Are you jealous?" he said slowly, deliberately, the smile deepening even more.
"Who are you?"
"A friend. An old, old friend."
The Corellian swallowed hard, remembering the Dark Lord's words back on Coruscant. And Master Yoda had thought that there might be two Sith ... Was this the other one?
"I see." Gathering all of his courage he drew himself up straighter. Alas the other man was still a head or so taller. Well, so be it. He could not change anything anyway. "And why should I be jealous?"
"Because you have been excluded, cannot follow your friend. You have become an intruder in his life. Jedi," the specter hissed, baring white teeth in a silent snarl.
"And do you think I care? Wait. Jedi? Luke is no Sith!"
The other man laughed quietly. "No? And what if he were? Would you hunt him like you did Lord Vader? Would your righteousness win out over friendship?"
He frowned suspiciously. "This is a test. But I will not fall for your stupid goadings."
"A test, Corran, is there to be taken, not to be refused. If you do not take a challenge then you will never be able to make your own choices."
"I am most capable of that, thank you very much," Corran replied stifftly.
"Then why don't you answer?"
"I will be a Jedi. As Luke is. You can't tell me he is anything else than that."
"Ah, but you are mistaken. About a great many things, it would seem. But maybe, maybe you will see the light in the end, the light of darkness. Secrets, Corran Horn, can be very dangerous."
"You do, don't you? You are an introspective person. You will accept the truth in the end, and learn to cope with it."
"And what truth would that be?"
"The truth about the Jedi and Sith, the truth about your origins and your masters. The truth about keeping secrets and carrying responsibility."
"Tell me again who your are, the public relations manager of the Sith?"
Again a chuckle. "Not quite. My name is Exar Kun, Dark Lord of Sith. Before your time. Well before your time."
"I can see that," Corran snorted. "I wonder why you are still around."
"That too, my dear friend, is a secret. Yet." And then he simply disappeared.
Luke was hugging himself tightly, too moved by the recent events to do anything else but talk to Vader or meditate. His soul was in deep turmoil, set off course by a terrible truth, that had been spawned from a secret left untold for too long. Mara had explained to him everything she knew about the Sith, with or without the Dark Lord's consent the young Jedi did not know. No, not Jedi. He laughed bitterly. He was a Sith now, wasn't he? A Sith by adoption. Weird. Now, standing at the viewport of Mara's quarters aboard the ship Luke sighed deeply, shuddering with dread.
"Are you all right?" she asked timidly from where she was seated on the comfortable looking couch in one corner. She had been watching him for an hour now, keeping silent to not disturb his warring thoughts. Luke smiled coldly.
"I do not understand why he fought so hard to keep this hidden. Why? Palpatine destroyed his people, his life and yet..."
"Lord Vader is a proud man."
"Too proud maybe."
"I am not certain."
Turning around Luke stared at Mara hard. "What?"
"Think about it. What does a proud man not want?"
"But that doesn't answer the question."
She shrugged. "I do not pretend to understand his lordship, do I?"
"I suppose not." He quirked a smile. "But I guess now that we are family he'll have to tell us."
"Don't count on it."
"You did what?"
"I talked to him. Surely there can be no harm in that?"
Darth Vader shook his head at Exar Kun meaningfully. "No harm? Corran Horn is an investigator. If he finds out-"
"You do not truly believe that you can continue keeping secrets now, do you? The lives of your people depend on you and on others understanding what has occurred here. If they don't, you will die and your people will be without guidance, abandoned by you. And, as I recall, you filled the young ones in on the past, did you not?"
The younger Sith Lord drew himself up haughtily. But it was true. Skywalker and Jade had demanded an explanation and he could hardly lie to those he was bound to protect and lead, could he? "I see. You might be interested to know that I will meet with Master Yoda once we have reached Coruscant."
"Skywalker spoke in my favor and they trust him, it would seem."
The two lords shared a knowing smile. "How fortunate," Kun mused aloud, his specter fluttering in obvious excitement. "And this Master Yoda, what about him? Will he understand that the time of keeping the truth hidden is over once and for all?"
"He has no choice. If he does not tell all of it the Jedi will be tainted forever because I will not keep silent."
"And he cannot afford to lose this one, can he? He has lost his last student already."
Darth Vader smiled coolly. "Not lost, Exar Kun, not at all."
"I can feel it. The boy is amazing. He will manage to lay the old enmities to rest."
"But what about you and me?"
Exar Kun laughed, the melodious sound echoing throughout the small room the Dark Lord had been assigned to. Leaning toward the younger Sith Lord he let his voice drop to a whisper:
He was patiently standing on the landing platform, oblivious to the murmur of voices filling the air around him. Everyone was watching the sky intently and anticipation was mixed with fear and triumph in the emotional range his keen senses could perceive. But those feelings, too, could not disturb his calm. Still, he could not deny the slight shaking of his hands. This outcome was unexpected and yet, he would not stand in the way of the Force. When the news had reached him he had been shocked at first, then overwhelmed with a great sense of defeat. In the end though he had accepted it. No more secrets. No more lies and half-truths. Finally there would be peace. Of course, there still was politics, but that too was a cliff they could master. The wind beating down on the great assembly suddenly from above broke his concentration though. The shuttle landed perfectly, setting down on the platform without disturbing it in the least. As the entry hatch slid open everyone seemed to tense, himself included. Luke bounded down the ramp, followed by a much more sober Corran. Both stopped suddenly and stared at him, embarrassed. But the Dark Lord's arrival broke the tense silence instantly. He swept onto the platform unafraid and his pale blue eyes locked onto the ancient Jedi Master without hesitating. Walking toward him Vader bowed formally and Yoda stared at the scars decorating the Sith Lord's face with some fascination.
"Master Yoda." The voice was as calm as the man's serene features and there was nothing but peace in his mind. Returning the formal greeting Yoda inclined his head gravely.
"Lord Vader, meet we do once more. Welcome you are to Coruscant."
The tall man smiled at him slowly. "Welcome? Is that a promise?"
Half an hour later the small company consisting of Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar, Princess Leia, the Dark Lord plus the three Jedi had assembled in one of the former Imperial Palaces' meeting rooms. Seated around a table each seemed reluctant to begin talking. But, as Yoda had anticipated, Darth Vader took the lead in the end. Leadership had become second nature to him over the years and it was a guise that suited him perfectly.
"I am certain that Corran Horn here has already reported to you," he began, folding his hands in front of them on the table top. "And you had a lot of time to think about what he has told you. Maybe you would care to enlighten me what you have decided?"
Mon Mothma shared a glance with the Jedi Master before answering: "Lord Vader, from what we could gather your heroic deeds saved the lives of many innocents. We found that quite impressive and also a bit disturbing."
"Disturbing," Vader echoed coldly.
"It does not fit your reputation."
"And my reputation is what you judge me by?"
"We do not know you in any other light, I fear. And there is some truth to it, I suspect."
"Some, agreed. But what does Corran Horn know that I do not?"
Master Yoda found that it was time to interfere. "No secrets, certain I am of that."
Vader smiled at him. "No, that is true. Let us talk about secrets then."
Yoda watched Luke lean forward unconsciously, his eyes intense.
Darth Vader cast a glance at the young man, but then focused on the Jedi Master again. "Maybe we should start at the end and the beginning," he smiled faintly. "A few months ago Corran Horn and Luke Skywalker led a squad of Rebel troops into the Great Tempe on Yavin 4. Unwillingly they disturbed me at a very unfortunate time. Their interference set off a series of actions on my part that can only be described as - disturbing."
"What were you doing there anyway?" Horn blurted out.
"I was actually attempting to join my people."
Luke spoke up somberly: "You wanted to die."
Vader nodded. "Yes."
He hesitated, unsure of his course of action. But then he plunged on, determined once more:
"I did not want the galaxy to remember us. The Sith were dead, or so I thought. Until life taught me differently."
"What did you do?" Again Corran Horn.
"The refugees. By protecting them, by shedding blood to save them I - bonded with them, made them mine."
"You did what? Why?"
"It is a bit hard to explain."
"Not at all," Mara Jade cut in. "And if you do not tell them yourself I will."
"You wouldn't dare, Jade."
"What does she mean?" Corran asked again, his eyes narrowing dangerously. "Is it something to do with the scars?"
Vader stared at him for a long time before he finally answered. When he did, his voice took on a distant tone that made Luke and the rest of the small assembly shiver:
"The scars are Sith scripture. The beginning and the end to a poem about Life and Death and Darkness and Light. Its meaning - depends on who and where you are, what condition you are in and for what purpose you have chosen the Shanda - the ritual."
"What is that ritual?" Corran asked, suddenly curious.
"It is meant as a last resort. When you have no other choice. There is unlimited power gained from severing the bonds to your people, one you can use to thwart any threat to them, and I mean any. Of course, you will die in the end," the Dark Lord added with a mirthless laugh.
"That's disgusting. Why did you ever consider doing that?"
It was as if time froze the moment Corran uttered those words. He could feel Mara's green eyes drill into him and saw Luke's cold stare. What was worse though was the look of deepest hurt on Vader's face. "What? What did I say?"
"My - people - died with Palpatine. All of them, every single life on the planet was wiped out. It was I who condemned them to death when I set my personal revenge above my duties to my people. I let myself be trapped. And I have paid a horrible prize."
"And now you have found a new people," Luke stated, his eyes growing soft.
"Yes. A new purpose, a reason to live on. I am grateful for that, in a way, but..." His voice trailed off as his gaze focused into the distant memories.
"You are afraid that you will forget the Sith?"
"Mostly afraid of forgetting my family. My wife. My - daughter." He looked at Skywalker quickly. Should he tell him the truth? "You knew her, I believe."
The young man's face was drained of all blood. "Nomi," he breathed. "Your daughter?"
"I hated you for letting her down on Hoth. All I wanted was to kill you for letting her die."
Luke swallowed hard. So he had been right. There were still some truths to be uncovered, just as he had thought. But this ... Sweet stars, who could have known? Nomi Vader. She had loved her father so much. A warrior, she had said, fighting for lost causes. And it had been so true. Suddenly he found his mind overflooding with questions. But those would need to be asked later. He was dizzy with excitement though and unable to think straight. His bitterness over her death had been the spark that had lit the fire of his hatred, a hatred that had nearly driven him insane when the Dark Lord had become a prisoner on Endor. I wanted to kill him! I wanted to kill her father! A hand was placed on his forearm gently and he looked up into Leia's large eyes. Understanding reflected in their dark depths and it warmed his heart gradually. Would the bond that connected him to Vader now have an impact on what he shared with his sister? He hoped not. This was all so complicated. Troubled eyes sought the Dark Lord's calm gaze. But the pain he could see there hurt Luke to much. If he had known ... Very suddenly he felt angry at both Vader and Master Yoda for keeping this secret. His voice had a rough edge to it when he raised his head determinedly and spoke:
"You do realize, don't you, that the truth would have prevented a lot of these things from happening. A lot. If you had told the Jedi they could have helped you. You said to me that Obi-Wan Kenobi was your friend. Why did you not ask him to speak for you?"
Darth Vader gave him a long look before he answered. "You are right. Maybe I should not have kept silent for so long. Perhaps it was a mistake. But the truth would not have saved my people and it would not have saved me. And I will not deny that I have hated the Jedi for a long time. A very long time."
"I suggest you ask Master Yoda that question."
The chill settling between the Dark Lord and the tiny Jedi Master made everyone else shiver. Luke did not get it. What did Master Yoda have to do with anything? Yes, he had kept Vader's secrets, but surely he could not be blamed for that? But still, the question remained.
"Master Yoda, could you explain to me what he means?"
The alien sighed deeply. But the sadness in his moss-green eyes got to all of them. "Know we did the fate of the Sith."
A sharp intake of breath brought everyone's attention on Corran, whose emerald eyes were suddenly blazing with outrage. "You knew?" he hissed, voicing everyone's opinion aloud. Luke felt his jaw drop.
"Obi-Wan Kenobi, fervently he spoke to come to their aid he did. But forbidden he was to interfere. The Jedi Council that decision they made. The sole survivor I am and the blame I will take."
"Thank you," Darth Vader said quietly, obviously moved.
But by then Mon Mothma had calculated what had been said and what had happened in the past to form a theory. Rising from her seat, a sure sign for her agitation, she stood tall, facing the Jedi Master. "The Jedi Order could hardly take the risk of helping Lord Vader. My heart cries out at your loss, but they could not have saved them. Noone could, you said it yourself."
The Dark Lord stared at her coldly. "That is only too true, but one fact remains: the Jedi's stance toward the Sith gave Palpatine the tool he needed to ensnare me. I do not want to belittle my role in this or excuse my naivité. When I was young my father send me to Coruscant for training, yet my willingness to learn was met only with distrust. Did you know, Mon Mothma, that the Jedi had sworn to kill every Sith who left our system? They were afraid. And rightfully so," he concluded, his voice dropping to a pained whisper.
Luek took a deep breath. There was too much darkness here, far too much. Joining Mon Mothma he closed his eyes briefly, fighting with himself for a brief period to find his calm again. When finally he looked upon the assembly again he smiled most sincerely. "Please, I understand now, I think, what drove each one of you to act the way you did. Lord Vader is right, the Jedi feared the Sith for a reason. And yet they took the wrong approach to solving this problem. Your father. Lord Vader, must have been a very wise man and yet the Jedi Council did not see that wisdom or else closed their eyes to it." A meaningful glance at Yoda sparked no anser. The alien Jedi was staring ahead pensively and Luke was not at all certain if his old master was listening at all. but Corran, Mara and Leia were returning his gaze with attentive silence. When the young man risked a glance in Vader's direction though his breath caught in his throat at the other's stony expression. "But we were given a chance to start anew," he continued a little less certain. "Don't you see? We cannot make the past undone, but we can make the future better."
Leia smiled at him. "Well spoken," she stated calmly and rose from her seat to take him in her arms. Turning her head around she nodded at the Dark Lord. "I understand your grief, Lord Vader, believe me. If you desire it I would like to help you overcome it as I overcame mine."
"That is a most gracious offer. But I have already found my peace."
"I am very happy to hear that."
"But maybe we could talk nevertheless?"
She beamed at Vader, her radiant smile mirrored in her dark eyes and Luke grinned joyfully. Maybe this would not be too bad.
Mara found her lips twitching in sympathy at the general feel of happiness permeating the small meeting room. Everything would turn out all right. Maybe. She surely wished for it. She had known most of the truth beforeheand, true, but the Jedi Master's admission had shocked her nevertheless. And yet Luke was right. They had been given a second chance and they were assembled here to use it. Now, if the Rebel leaders played this right it could also serve their own reputation. To uncover the greatest evil of Palpatine along with the destruction of Alderaan and showing forgiveness for the man whose life had been destroyed by it. Just perfect. She smiled coldly. Politics. It was politics mixed with real emotions and maybe that way it was not even the worst. Not at all. But Skywalker... Skywalker had surprised her. His little speech had eased the tension, had healed some wounds and had given them a tiny spark of hope. Now all they had to do was light a fire that would keep on burning for the time ahead. Still, the future could not start without the past being laid to rest. When Darth Vader's head came around suddenly, his blue eyes narrowed ever so slightly, she gasped involuntarily.
"The past is not to be forgotten," he told her softly. "Never. It reminds us of our failures and of why we have changed things to accomodate the present."
"You can read my mind?"
He shrugged easily. "I am the Dark Lord of the Sith. I am your guardian. There are a few privileges to that." Smiling at Mara he leaned back in his chair calmly.
"Much truth is in your words, Lord Vader," the Jedi Master added, his voice sounding awfully tired. "But determine we must, what happen will now."
It was some time later and the New Republic leaders were still discussing this new turn of events in private. Lord Vader had insisted on seeing after the refugees and had left an hour ago. Luke and Mara Jade had retreated to the Princess' quarters and now Master Yoda was walking the spacious gardens of the Palace with Corran in silence. The Corellian had been pestering him with a lot of questions about the past, about morals and ethics and how they applied to the Jedi. Yoda had told him about the horror of the Sith Wars which had led to the Jedi's decision to confine the Sith to their home world. And the young man had understood in the end. He was pragmatic, after all. Now, walking side by side each followed their own thoughts in deep concentration. Suddenly an easy laugh rang from Corran's lips.
"With all due respect, Master Yoda, you two are stubborn old fools, I think."
"Do you now? Agree Lord Vader would not."
"Oh, he would, I am sure. Speaking of..." His voice trailed off and he stopped, looking over at the dark-clad form of the Dark Lord who was discussing with some New Republic troops quite loudly. The two Jedi approached the group cautiously, but at a wave of the Jedi Master's hands the soldiers dispersed, throwing suspicious glances at the Sith Lord as they left.
"What was that about?" Corran asked, curious.
"They will not let me leave," the tall warrior replied curtly.
"What? Of course not! And why do you want to leave before the New Republic has decided?"
Master Yoda made a shushing noise and Corran fell silent obediently. Nodding at the Dark Lord Yoda gestured for a set of benches and waited for everyone to take a seat.
"Justified it is. Why want you to leave?"
"I do not want my people to stay here on Coruscant. I will go and search for a suitable place for us to live."
"The New Republic could help you with your inquiries," Corran put in gently.
"No, thank you, they have ' helped' enough already," Vader snorted. Yoda sighed deeply.
"Need you they will. Or do you intend to leave them without a leader as you did before?"
The Dark Lord held his head proudly but his blue eyes flashed with annoyance:
"Well played, Jedi. Indeed I would not want my people's fate to be repeated. Not as long as you are still around."
His temper finally snapping Corran jumped up angrily and opened his mouth to reply something vicious. Vader shot him a cool glance and a cruel smile. "Have you made your master's secrets your own?"
The Corellian frowned furiously: "No, I have not," he answered finally and sat back down.
Yoda shook his head sadly: "Mistakes we both have made, Corran. Learn from them you must. But, Lord Vader, leave I will not let you."
Now it was the Sith Lord's turn to rise in fury. "You will not let me!" he screamed, his voice echoing hoarsely through the peaceful garden. Hands propped on his hips he stared down at the two Jedi sternly.
"It is my decision, mine alone. And I will not concede to your wishes, under no circumstances."
Master Yoda and Corran shared a knowing glance.
"Then you leave us no choice. We will accept your decision. But others may not."
Vader snorted contemptously:
"If you are referring to the so-called New Republic - well, they can certainly try to stop me. And fail."
Frowning at the other man Yoda suddenly had a nasty suspicion nagging at the back of his mind. The Dark Lord felt strangely on edge, agitated even. "Lord Vader, think I do that your goal another it is."
"And you are right. He is going to Yavin 4," a new voice announced with some satisfaction.
Darth Vader sighed inwardly. Somehow Exar Kun had a knack for appearing just at the wrong moment. He gave the specter a heated glare before he went on to study the two Jedi's startled expression.
"You!" Corran Horn shouted suddenly. "I remember you."
"And I you. Ain't that nice? And this is the infamous Master Yoda. A pleasure."
The Jedi Master's mouth twitched in distaste. "Exar Kun. The stories, remember them I do. Manage you did how to escape your prison?"
"Does it matter?"
The Dark Lord wiped a hand through the bluish outline impatiently. "Enough. It is true. I am going to Yavin 4 to attend to some unfinished business."
"Corran. Leave you will us now," Yoda ordered the Corellian coolly.
Once the Jedi apprentice had retreated the alien master faced the two Sith Lords calmly. Very impressive. He must know that Kun can still wreck havoc in the real world if he wishes too. And yet there is no fear here, Darth Vader thought with some admiration.
"So, what business is this?"
"An initiation for the future Dark Lord of the Sith."
Yoda's face hardened. "Luke knows of this?"
Exar Kun burst out laughing. "He catches on pretty quickly, doesn't he?"
"Not yet," Darth Vader replied between clenched teeth, trying hard to ignore the annoying specter. "But when his time comes he will be duly informed. Still, the initiation rite encompasses two seperate rituals. One for the past and one for the future."
The Jedi Master smiled. "Try you should this time to stay alive."
"Do not worry. I will keep an eye on him," Kun explained cheerfully.
"Then you agree to this?"
"Need we do a new beginning. And united will be the Jedi and the Sith."
Three weeks later the time had come for the Sith to embrace their new guardian. Luke was mightily nervous as he stepped onto the platform gingerly. It was a sturdy construct made of stone and yet he felt that it would slip away underneath his feet at any time. Fighting down his excitement he put on a calm face and blew out his breath measuredly. Darth Vader had returned from Yavin 4 a week back looking tired but satisfied. And Luke was glad that he had arrived safely. He would have hated having Exar Kun as his teacher. Shooting the two former Dark Lords situated at the edge of the crowd a nervous glance he composed himself for the ritual. Dressed in formal black the young man closed his eyes as he had been instructed to, and listened intently. Man, it was too bad that Leia and all of his friends had not been allowed to attend too. But this was for Sith only. Concentrate! a sharp voice snapped at him impatiently and he was startled to find that it had been his own. His arms raised almost of their own accord as he began to speak the words of the ritual, watching each of it disappear in the endless void ahead of him. As he continued feeding the darkness his ears picked up very faint echoes, a song building from the deepest depths of the universe, calling out to him. The Force. Never had he felt so close to it before in his life. His voice gained strength with each passing moment and when the assembly suddenly joined in with his chant he felt tears of joy stream down his cheeks. Filled with a desire to protect and to guide those he had sworn to lead Luke Skywalker secretly vowed to himself that he would not let the Jedi be forgotten. There would be guardians and there would be his people. There would be peace at last. And no more secrets.